The singing snails of Hopeless, Maine, their shells adorned with the dribblings and droolings of wax melted from the candles they carry so proudly, have always sung, but there was a time when their shells were undecorated. Nobody is entirely sure when the candles became ubiquitous, or who started the craze – if you can call something a craze when it has been going on far beyond living memory. Whoever it was, we can only speculate as to their intentions.
The most popular origin story for the shell candles involves two children and a birthday celebration. The children were siblings, both living at Hopeless, Maine’s famous orphanage, in the days long before Miss Calder. Legend has it that the proprietor was a particularly spiteful woman, who allowed treats only for her favourites, and who locked the birthday child in the attic for asking for a cake. The child’s sister, enraged and broken-hearted at this cruelty, devised a birthday delight. She crept out to the yard and collected snails in her pockets. She stole candles and matches from the kitchen. And she waited until night fell before climbing up onto the roof of the orphanage.
The attic window was barred, but the sash could be raised a few inches. She knocked, clinging to the frame to stop herself sliding down the tiles, until her poor imprisoned sibling opened the window. ‘Stand back,’ she said, ‘and I’ll send them in to you’.
She took a snail from her pocket and reached through the bars to set it on the windowsill. Lighting the first candle was perilous, as she had to let go of the window frame to strike the match, but once it was alight, she could return the matchbox to her pocket. A few drops of wax on the snail’s shell gave the candle a firm footing. Then the second snail, placed beside the first, the candle lit also from the first and carefully anchored to the shell. By now, the first snail was creeping from its casing and beginning to glide across the sill, heading into the attic. The girl held her breath as the snail oozed over the edge, its candle now horizontal and dripping wax onto the floor, but snail and candle remained stuck together.
One at a time, seven snails, each carrying a candle, sailed majestically down the wall to the attic floor. The girl clung to the bars, pushing her face between them so she could see. The child inside knelt on the floor, face illuminated by candlelight and joy, the centre of a slowly rotating circle of molluscs. They moved with purpose, keeping their distance from each other, somehow choreographed in their slimy birthday celebration. Both children watched, entranced.
And then the snails began to sing.
We will probably never know the truth of where the candles came from, but what we do know is that the snails decided that they liked being little carriers of light, and have continued with what in humans we would call a tradition. They have even devised ceremonies analogous to some of our own.
Young snails, upon reaching a size where they can safely carry a candle, experience a kind of baptism, where a candle is placed on their back for the first time. They parade solemnly through the snail colony, followed by others who have replaced their own plain candles with brightly coloured ones. At snail funerals, the candle is allowed to burn down, covering the departed’s shell in wax. This behaviour was unknown for many years, and the significance of the caches of wax-coated shells was the subject of a great many theories, from offerings to sea witches to good-luck charms for children sitting their exams.
What can only be described as marital rites involve the establishment of a candle-pair, or candle-group. The snails thus bonded appear to promise to care not only for their partner or partners, but also to take responsibility for the replenishment of their candle.
These interpretations are, of course, based on human observations. There may well be gastropologists who have made a study of these rites and rituals, but unless or until humans and snails find ways to share their notes, we will never be entirely certain of the consequence of these activities.